The Brexit vote was “overwhelmingly” fuelled by “elderly people obsessed with immigration” said Vince Cable in early July, sizing up the job of Liberal Democrat leader. Back in January, though, the 74-year-old Twickenham MP admitted to “serious doubts that the EU’s free movement policy is tenable or even desirable”.
“I don’t see much upside in Brexit,” said Cable six months ago, the man now confirmed as Britain’s most “elderly” party leader since Churchill. “But one is the opportunity for a more rational immigration policy,”
I have considerable respect for Cable – at whatever age. Knowing him a long time, I’m aware he has thought deeply about UK immigration. EU rules allow unlimited numbers to cross the Channel, of course, which Cable acknowledges puts pressure on low-skilled wages and social housing.
It’s a shame, then, he now wants a “reappraisal” of the UK’s referendum decision, while suggesting Brexit “may not happen”. If diehard Parliamentary Remainers somehow block Brexit, the damage will extend beyond democracy. The UK will retain our failing immigration system as is, squandering a chance to implement rules that are fairer and more business-friendly, with much broader public support.
Immigration is clearly a net-positive. Our economy and cultural life have benefited enormously, over centuries, from successive waves of talented migrants. Sharp increases in annual net immigration over recent years, though, have raised serious questions.
In 1997, net migration was 48,000, rising to 177,000 in 2012. In 2015, ahead of the Brexit vote, net inflows reached 333,000 – equal to the population of Cardiff. Net immigration, having doubled since 2012, is up seven-fold since 1997.
Favoured by many large employers, sky-high immigration makes low-skilled workers more vulnerable, while stretching the public services upon which poorer citizens heavily rely. EU freedom of movement rules also discriminate against non-EU migrants, including those from places like the US, India and Australasia, where Britain has close ties. Then there’s evidence large-scale immigration has deterred UK firms from investing in staff training.
Britain needs “managed immigration” – designed by UK ministers and put through Parliament before the Article 50 window closes in March 2019. A credible migration policy, providing the labour industry needs while retaining public trust, does not mean “pulling up the drawbridge” – a phrase used ad nauseum by those determined to close down debate.
We may adopt an Australian-style “points-based system” for EU migrants, selecting on factors such as age, skills and potential contribution to society. More likely, in my view, is a “work-permit system”, with employer-driven applications and total immigration limits, set each year based on skills gaps and the state of the economy.
The merits of these systems and others will be debated vigorously over the coming months. Before that, some early comment early on three aspects of the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy.
First, genuine international students should not be included in immigration figures. They are not permanent residents but do bring significant gains. Overseas students generated £11bn of export earnings in 2015, adding over £25bn to UK GDP, much of that across the regions. Foreign students do not affect low-skilled workers, but they do often become business and political leaders in their native lands – providing the UK with untold future diplomatic and trade links. While the dangers of “bogus student” fraud are high by fining universities as well as individuals if student visas are falsely awarded or overstayed and using biometric identification, they should be surmountable.
Technology has a huge role to play more generally in winning back public confidence in immigration. That’s my second observation. Britain has issued “e-passports” since 2006 – and all new passports are now biometric. As electronic identification becomes more commonplace, with the Home Office using more biometric permits, the UK must surely harness technology to manage the borders of this most popular migrant destination, that happens to be an island.
My final thought is that we should seriously consider devolved immigration policy. Different parts of the country have varying labour requirements – and voted differently in the referendum. The costs and benefits of the recent migration influx have, after all, been unevenly felt. Devolving immigration decisions allows the UK’s regions and nations to act according to their own specific interests.
Regional visas have been used successfully in Canada and elsewhere. Local politicians and businesses set quotas, with successful applicants tied to a region where they live and work. Such visas, after central security checks, can be used to attract migrant labour skilled and unskilled, as part of broader regional development plans.
The City of London Corporation wants a “London visa” – providing preferential access to the capital for highly-skilled EU nationals with financial services experience. In a recent report, thought, the Corporation argues “a regional visa system could facilitate and promote economic development outside of London”.
The UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy, handled well, could be enormously beneficial and growth-positive. The EU’s struggles with a Schengen arrangement that is fueling intolerance and nationalism, while arguably encouraging people-smuggling across the Mediterranean, with all the related tragedy. The UK, meanwhile, has a
chance to put its immigration policy, and the country’s inherently positive attitude towards migrants, back on a stable footing. That can only happen under Brexit.
Back in September 2016, Vince Cable rejected a second EU referendum. “The public have voted,” he said. “It’s seriously disrespectful and politically utterly counterproductive to say ‘sorry guys, you’ve got it wrong, try again’”. Now he has changed his tune. Yet a second referendum, if secured, would almost certainly prevent Brexit. The EU would make the deal so ghastly that rejection was guaranteed.
The majority of the public accept that freedom of movement must end. I thought Vince Cable did too.